The best books about making movies

8 authors have picked their favorite books about making movies and why they recommend each book.

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A Dance with Fred Astaire

By Jonas Mekas,

Book cover of A Dance with Fred Astaire

Mekas was a Lithuanian émigré who became an impresario of experimental cinema. He lived a long and eventful life, and this eccentric book is a fascinating account of it.

Who am I?

I started my career as a graduate student studying the Victorian period, a great age for autobiography. And although autobiography is no longer taught much in English departments, I guess I retain my passion for the genre. The greatest, of course, is Rousseau’s Confessions.

I wrote...

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War

By Louis Menand,

Book cover of The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War

What is my book about?

In his follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand offers a new intellectual and cultural history of the postwar years. The Cold War was not just a contest of power. It was also about ideas, in the broadest sense--economic and political, artistic and personal. In The Free World, the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar and critic Louis Menand tells the story of American culture in the pivotal years from the end of World War II to Vietnam and shows how changing economic, technological, and social forces put their mark on creations of the mind.

The Way We Lived Then

By Dominick Dunne,

Book cover of The Way We Lived Then: Recollections of a Well-Known Name Dropper

Before he became a writer of potboiler novels and true-crime journalism, Dominick Dunne was a film and television producer and a social butterfly who also happened also to be an avid amateur photographer. This memoir of his Hollywood days, which resulted in a crash-and-burn from which he emerged as a writer, is filled with intimate, candid images of such friends (not all faithful) as Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood, Paul Newman, and Frank Sinatra, as well, of course, as Dunne and his family. There are dreamy and even eye-popping tales throughout, and if you're at all familiar with Dunne's books or magazine writing, you'll marvel at how so much of it so neatly dovetails with the life he actually lived and, thankfully, captured on film and in these frank and candid pages.

Who am I?

Shawn Levy is the author of 11 books of biography and pop culture history, including The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, Paul Newman: A Life, Rat Pack Confidential, and Ready, Steady, Go! The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London. He was the longtime film critic of The Oregonian newspaper and KGW-TV in his beloved home city of Portland. He has written a history of the women pioneers of standup comedy which will be published by Doubleday in 2022 and at work on a podcast about the dark connections of politics and show business.

I wrote...

The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont

By Shawn Levy,

Book cover of The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont

What is my book about?

Since 1929, Hollywood's brightest stars have flocked to the Chateau Marmont as if it were a second home. An apartment building-turned-hotel, the Chateau has been the backdrop for generations of gossip and folklore: where director Nicholas Ray slept with his sixteen-year-old Rebel Without a Cause star Natalie Wood; Jim Morrison swung from the balconies; John Belushi suffered a fatal overdose; and Lindsay Lohan got the boot after racking up nearly $50,000 in charges in less than two months. But despite its mythic reputation, much of what has happened inside the Chateau's walls has eluded the public eye--until now. With wit and insight, Shawn Levy recounts the wild revelries and scandalous liaisons, the creative breakthroughs and marital breakdowns, the births and deaths to which the hotel has been a party. Vivid, salacious, and richly informed, The Castle on Sunset is a glittering tribute to Hollywood as seen from inside the walls of its most hallowed hotel.

You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again

By Julia Phillips,

Book cover of You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again

The New York Times called this memoir “The Hollywood Chainsaw Massacre!” and it still stands as one of the best. Phillips, who died New Year’s Day 2002, was a self-described “nice Jewish girl from Great Neck,” Long Island who loved the movies, movie stars — and books. She was sharp, unsparing, and became the first female producer to win an Oscar for Best Picture. The closest comp title, I think, is The Kid Stays In The Picture by the late Robert Evans, but Phillips does him better in eviscerating no one so much as herself. And this is someone who describes Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood as “very sweet, but . . . smells terrible,” before asking, “Why don’t the English like to bathe?” An observation that could get one canceled today.

Who am I?

Maureen Callahan is a New York Times bestselling author, award-winning investigative journalist, columnist, and commentator. She has covered everything from pop culture to politics. Her writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, New York, Spin, and the New York Post, where she is Critic-at-Large. She lives in New York. For Shepherd, Callahan has selected her favorite books about American pop culture, which is currently dominated by her favorite subgenre, true crime.

I wrote...

American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century

By Maureen Callahan,

Book cover of American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century

What is my book about?

Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy. Jeffrey Dahmer. The names of notorious serial killers are usually well-known; they echo in the news and in public consciousness. But most people have never heard of Israel Keyes, one of the most ambitious and terrifying serial killers in modern history. The FBI considered his behavior unprecedented. Described by a prosecutor as a force of pure evil, Keyes was a predator who struck all over the United States. He buried kill kits--cash, weapons, and body-disposal tools--in remote locations across the country. Over the course of fourteen years, Keyes would fly to a city, rent a car, and drive thousands of miles in order to use his kits. He would break into a stranger's house, abduct his victims in broad daylight, and kill and dispose of them in mere hours. And then he would return home to Alaska, resuming life as a quiet, reliable construction worker devoted to his only daughter.

Blue Movie

By Terry Southern,

Book cover of Blue Movie

Any book that starts with the line, “Who do you have to fuck to get off this movie,” has to be terrific, right? Terry Southern, the iconic writer of Candy, writes about a bunch of Hollywood characters who decide to make the perfect X-rated movie and sell it to a mainstream studio. The book is completely outrageous, in the same vein as Southern’s black humor film Dr. Strangelove.

Who am I?

Like many novelists – all the way back to F. Scott Fitzgerald --  writing for film and television has been my day job. The pay is obscenely good, and it leaves you time to write what you really love – fiction. Most writers in Hollywood have a love/hate relationship with the movie business – described by some wit as “a crapshoot masquerading as a business masquerading as an art form.” And the books I am recommending express this mixture of scorn and reverence with humor and compassion. In my book The Deal I am clearly biting the hand that fed me over the years – but why not? As that old humorist Albert Camus said, “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”

I wrote...

The Deal: A Novel of Hollywood

By Peter Lefcourt,

Book cover of The Deal: A Novel of Hollywood

What is my book about?

Washed up film producer Charlie Berns has mailed in his updated obit and is about to suck his Mercedes tailpipe and fade to black when a miracle materializes: his nephew, a wannabe screenwriter from New Jersey, has scripted the life story of Queen Victoria's prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, which Charlie manages to turn into a hot property that reinstates him as a player. But as the deal heats up, a few conceptual changes morph the project into Lev Disraeli: Freedom Fighter, an action thriller with a black Jewish superstar, a Yugoslavian location, a mad Polish director, and even a real-life kidnapping. Is Charlie Berns being eaten alive by the system? Or is he giving the Hollywood hotshots a run for their money?

Peter Lefcourt's hilarious satire proves the old adage that in Hollywood you're never quite as dead as people give you credit for.

Be Cool

By Elmore Leonard,

Book cover of Be Cool

I’ll admit, the Russian villain in this thriller is a very bit part, but I can’t have a top 5 list of any thriller without including Elmore Leonard. I read one of Leonard’s first urban thrillers, Glitz, back in ‘80’s and was blown away with how gritty it was. I’d never heard dialogue coming out of character’s mouths like that before. He wrote dialogue like people actually spoke—not with perfect dialect, but street language. It’s the reason he was dubbed the Dickens of Detroit. If you’ve read Elmore Leonard and liked him, then pick this up and read it. It’s a quasi-sequel to Get Shorty with shylock Chili Palmer moving from the movie industry to the music business. 

If you’ve never read Leonard, then start with this one. My writing career would never have flourished like is has without reading Leonard, so this on is near to my heart. Enjoy.  

Who am I?

From a very early age, writing has always been my one true passion. Ever since I was in eighth grade and my teacher would pass out copies of my journal assignment for that week, I was hooked on the idea of writing. I could create my own world where no one could tell me how my characters should behave. Well, two Pushcart Prize nominations and many awards later, I’m grateful I pursued my dream to become a writer. I hope you’ve enjoyed the list I provided and please feel free to pick up one of my Nick Bracco thrillers about a Sicilian FBI agent who uses his Mafia-connected cousin to track terrorists. 

I wrote...

A Touch of Terror (A Nick Bracco Thriller Book 6)

By Gary Ponzo,

Book cover of A Touch of Terror (A Nick Bracco Thriller Book 6)

What is my book about?

A rogue Russian agent known as The Machine has infiltrated the U.S. border with a case of uranium powerful enough to destroy the entire west coast. FBI agent Nick Bracco recruits his Mafia-connected cousin Tommy to help track down the case and try to save the nation from the devastating attack. But this time Nick and his partner, Matt McColm, have met their match.

A Life

By Elia Kazan,

Book cover of A Life

Okay, it’s more of an autobiography than a memoir, but Kazan’s 826-page volcano is the most explosive and mesmerizing show-business book I’ve ever plunged into. From his salad days as a struggling actor with New York’s Group Theatre to his conquest of Broadway as the hottest, most pugnacious stage director of the mid-20th century (Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), to his Oscar-winning films (Streetcar, Gentleman’s Agreement, On the Waterfront), Kazan vividly recounts his triumphs, missteps and misdeeds, his mistreatment of his wife and many lovers, and his betrayal of former friends and comrades, in a voice overflowing with self-laceration and self-justification. With a supporting cast that includes Tennessee Williams, Vivien Leigh, Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, and James Dean.

Who am I?

I worked for 27 years at The Washington Post, where I won a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. But when I returned home in 2006, I wanted to write about my own country, and what could be more American than the movies? They’re a wonderful looking glass into the past, and my books explore the making of an iconic movie and the historical era in which it was created. My recent ones have recounted the making of The Searchers, starring John Wayne, and High Noon, the Gary Cooper classic and its connection to the Hollywood blacklist, a time of vicious conflict eerily similar to our own troubled era.

I wrote...

Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic

By Glenn Frankel,

Book cover of Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic

What is my book about?

More than 50 years after its release, Midnight Cowboy remains one of the most groundbreaking and memorable movies of the modern era. My book traces the origins of this bleak masterpiece and the gifted writers, actors, and filmmakers who made it. Set in a New York besieged by economic collapse and cultural ferment, the movie tells the story of two homeless loners—a male hustler from Texas and a tubercular petty con man from the Bronx, brilliantly played by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman—who forge a wary friendship out of desperate circumstances. The movie was a surprise box office hit and the only X-rated movie ever to win the Best Picture Oscar.

Room to Dream

By David Lynch, Kristine McKenna,

Book cover of Room to Dream

While this book is a bio-memoir, I included it on my list as a correspondent homage to the cinematic shaman of twisted mysteries, David Lynch. For the past forty plus years, Lynch has dreamscaped a long day’s journey into night, taking audiences on a hallucinated tour through the underworld of their own splintered psyche. Lynch’s oeuvre, a steam-punk Frankenstein of interchangeable parts, speaks to the savvy and glee of a mad scientist at play, while his blending of the eternal with American pop has given us a surrealistic soap opera with an eye toward the numinous. Written in alternating chapters, between Lynch and McKenna, this book is a must-read for fans of Lynch, but beyond that, if you are a fan and lover of cinema, creative process, and following your bliss, Room to Dream strikes those chords with a down-to-earth immediacy. It is, in essence, one man’s multi-layered valentine…

Who am I?

I have long been an ardent admirer and student of works that transgress boundaries and extend the frontiers of literature. A blurring and subversion of genres, or fusion of forms and modalities, arouses my imagination and inspires me to see differently, to read differently, to travel to places within myself that otherwise might remain undiscovered and uncharted. To me, writing is an ongoing experiment, a series of progressions and adventures which ask me to stay open, supple, and curious. There is no set formula—each book demands its own form, and both as writer and reader, I most desire to be engaged in what is a solitary ritual of interaction.  

I wrote...

Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale

By John Biscello,

Book cover of Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale

What is my book about?

A spectral, existential noir set against the aging irons of Coney Island and old guard lions of hip hop and silent film, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale tracks the singular odyssey of would-be sleuth and soon-to-be wordsmith, Salvatore Massimo Lunezzi. Prompted by an enigmatic phone call from a writer-friend claiming to be dead, Lunezzi launches an investigation that leads him to Ghostwriters, Inc., a company selling inspiration to struggling writers through the medium of “ghosting.” From Buster Keaton to Arthur Rimbaud, a boozy and brilliant dwarf to an enchanting femme fatale, Lunezzi is drawn deeper and deeper into the soul of the story where fiction and reality inevitably converge.

Mike Nichols

By Mark Harris,

Book cover of Mike Nichols: A Life

Let me ask you something. How do you write such an unflinching biography when you have the total cooperation of the subject without the subject having the good taste to pass away during Week One? Harris does it, and in doing so, vaults over the “Bang the Drum Slowly” author to number one on the list: “Greatest Writers Ever Named Mark Harris.” It is exhaustively researched yet reads like a thriller. And like Jane Leavy, Harris stays out of the way and leaves no fingerprints.

Who am I?

Why do I use the word “fraud?” The answer is agonizingly simple. My whole life, and I mean since I was ten, I wanted to be “a real writer.” Whatever that was. And now here we are, 55 years later. Despite my great good fortune to spend 24 years coming up with jokes for Dave Letterman, three years as a columnist at Sports Illustrated, and to have my name on four novels, if you asked me, “Are you a real writer?” I would tell you, “not yet….” Here are five real writers.

I wrote...

Shrink Thyself

By Bill Scheft,

Book cover of Shrink Thyself

What is my book about?

In Shrink Thyself, Charlie Traub decides to leave psychotherapy and live the unexamined life. A noble goal, which would be even more noble if his former therapist (now his friend) didn’t turn out to be beyond inappropriate and his mother didn’t die in a way that would have made Freud transfer to dental school. Despite all unexamined evidence to the contrary, Charlie just might be unable to accept that wherever he goes, there he is.

Bill Scheft has created a sad-sack hero with the exuberant narrative verve of a character out of Philip Roth or Saul Bellow…”  The AtlanticA laugh-out-loud commentary on life, love, and loneliness.” – Foreword Reviews

The World at Night

By Alan Furst,

Book cover of The World at Night

In the early days of World War II, a Paris-based film producer tries to carry on working as usual and ignore the Nazi occupiers. Given the chance to give some minor aid to the British secret service, he agrees, and with each step, he’s drawn deeper and deeper into danger. His best–and only—weapon is his wits. Maybe at first he doesn’t think he’s taking much of a risk. But, with hindsight, I know how precarious his situation is, and I’m silently begging him not to do it! Furst’s riveting spy tales are what first attracted me to stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

Who am I?

When I say I enjoy stories of ordinary people in extraordinary situations, I’m talking about characters who don’t have law enforcement or Special Forces training, who aren’t martial arts experts, KGB agents, or CIA officers. I like those characters too, but they typically engage my head, not my heart. Thrown into dangerous situations, “ordinary” individuals can show tremendous courage and quick-wittedness. I can easily put myself in their shoes and empathize with their plight, which gives me a real stake in the story’s outcome. If a story is well-written, the creative ways characters respond and the strengths they discover within themselves make them true heroes to me.

I wrote...

Architect of Courage

By Victoria Weisfeld,

Book cover of Architect of Courage

What is my book about?

The summer before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the orderly life of successful Manhattan architect Archer Landis is upended by the murder of the woman he loves. When, to his surprise, the authorities link her to the Arab American community, their reflexive conclusion is “terrorist.” Landis sets out on a journey full of twists and turns to prove them wrong. But additional mysterious attacks target everyone and everything he holds dear. In response—and to survive—Landis must confront prejudice, self-doubt, the limits of loyalty, and a need for redemption that transcends revenge.

Easy Riders Raging Bulls

By Peter Biskind,

Book cover of Easy Riders Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And Rock 'n Roll Generation Saved Hollywood

Just before and during the same period that SNL was raging on the East Coast, rising directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas were rewriting the rules of Hollywood. Biskind’s history of the New Hollywood of the Seventies, which starts with 1969’s biker classic Easy Rider, is jammed with juicy stories of sex, drugs, and film canisters. But it also makes you appreciate anew the way movies like  Chinatown, Nashville, Taxi Driver, and Star Wars made going to the local movie theater a newly thrilling and surprising experience. 

Who am I?

I’m a senior writer at Rolling Stone, where I cover a wide range of music-related topics. But as a child of the Seventies, I was shaped by the defining and enthralling pop culture of that era, from singer-songwriters, Southern rock, and disco records to Norman Lear sitcoms. In some of my work, I’ve chronicled the highs and lows of that era, perhaps as a way to answer a question that haunted me during my youth: Why did my older sisters and their friends keep telling me that the Sixties were the most incredible decade ever and the Seventies were awful? What did I miss? And how and where did it all go wrong?

I wrote...

Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970

By David Browne,

Book cover of Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970

What is my book about?

As a new decade arrives, so do seismic shifts in rock and roll: Three of the most iconic bands of the era break up, and new talent, reflecting the more inward and less political trends of the Seventies, busts out of the gate. The first book on the musical, political, and cultural changes of the year 1970, Fire and Rain tells the story of four landmark artists, their key albums (the Beatles’ Let It Be, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà vu and James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James), the intertwining personal ties between those artists, and the ways in which their songs and journeys mirrored the end of one era and the start of another, equally jarring one.

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